Both types of formatting will get you on your way to setting up a new operating system, but is one version of formatting preferable to, or better than, the other? What is the difference between the two? We explore the answer to those questions in today’s SuperUser Q&A post.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Image shown above courtesy of saebaryo.

The Question

SuperUser reader Rudolph wants to know what the difference between a quick and a full format is:

I am installing Windows XP on a computer and again I got to the point where it asks you to choose between a quick format and a full format. What is the difference? I know with Windows 7 & 8 installations it appears to do quick formats by default. Is there any difference between the two in terms of risk or consistency?

As the names imply, there is a difference in the amount of time each type of formatting takes, but what else is different between the two? Is one better, or more preferable than, the other?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Werner Henze has the answer for us:

The term formatting is used for different things.

First it is used for low-level formatting of a hard disk. This includes taking the disk and dividing it into small units – the blocks, which can be accessed by the operating system. Nowadays the manufacturers configure the sector size (like 512 bytes or 4096 bytes) and low-level format the disk. Normally the user can’t low-level format a hard disk anymore.

Second, formatting is used for high-level formatting of a hard disk. This means that the operating system is writing a file system structure to the disk. With good old FAT (File Allocation Table) for example, the system would write a boot sector to the first disk sector and an empty FAT to the following sectors. Empty in this case means that all entries in the File Allocation Table are marked as unused.

High-level formatting might include scanning the disk for bad sectors (check if every sector can be read), and it might include writing zeroes to all data sectors on the disk.

When you format a disk, Windows XP does a high level format and it writes a file system structure to the disk. When you say full format, then Windows XP also scans all sectors on the disk for bad sectors (see MSKB 302686). Since Windows Vista, a full format writes zeroes to all data sectors (see MSKB 941961). Accessing each sector on the disk takes much more time than the quick format, which only writes the blocks that contain the file system structure. So normally a quick format is what you want because it is much faster. But there are cases where you might want to do a full format.

1. You might have a disk that you want to destroy or give away. If you just do a quick format, then the file data is still on the disk, only the file system structure (file names and information where the files are stored on the disk) are deleted. With specialized programs someone might try to “undelete” your files – the data is still there, the task of the program is to guess/know which data block belongs to which file.

2. You might not be sure if the hard disk is in a good state. Then a full format is a good idea because it accesses every sector, so if any sector is bad, this will be recognized. With a quick format only a few sectors will be written to. With bad luck you end up with a successful quick format, and when you want to write data to the disk later, it fails. Then you will probably be wishing you had done a full format that would have checked the entire disk right at the beginning. Of course you can always run a ‘chkdsk /r’ later to scan a disk for bad sectors.

You asked about risks and consistency. I wrote about the risks above. Regarding consistency there is no difference. With every format the operating system writes the file system structure, and this structure is the starting point for every file system access. It does not make any difference if unused sectors are zeroed out or filled with random data.

For more information, you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia Article for Formatting.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
Read Full Bio »